Student access to marked examination scripts

Posted in Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 25, 2018 by telescoper

I’m currently waiting for the last couple of scripts from my Physics of the Early Universe examination to arrive so I can begin the task of marking them. The examination was yesterday morning, and it’s now Friday afternoon, so I don’t know why it takes so long for the scripts to find their way to the examiner, especially when marking is on such a tight schedule. I’m away next week (in Ireland) so if I don’t get papers by this afternoon they won’t be marked until I return. The missing two are from students sitting in alternative venues, but I don’t see why that means they take over 24 hours  to get to the marker.

(By the way,  `script’ refers to what the student writes (usually in a special answer book), as opposed to the `paper’ which is the list of questions to be answered or problems to be solved in the script.)

Anyway, while I’m waiting for the missing scripts to arrive I thought I’d mention that here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University we have a system whereby students can get access to their marked examination scripts.  This access is limited, and for the purpose of getting feedback on where they went wrong, not for trying to argue for extra marks. The students can’t take the scripts away, nor can they make a copy, but the can take notes which will hopefully help them in future assessments. There’s a similar provision in place in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, where I will be relocating full-time in July, based around a so-called `Consultation Day’.

When I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University I tried to introduce such a system there, but it was met with some resistance from staff who thought this would not only cause a big increase in workload and but also lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been the experience here at Cardiff: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed.  Last year I had only one student who asked to go through their script. I was happy to oblige and we had a friendly and (I think) productive meeting.

If I had my way we would actually give all students their marked examination scripts back as a matter of routine. The fact that we don’t is no doubt one reason for relatively poor performance in student satisfaction surveys about assessment and feedback. Obviously examination scripts have to go through a pretty strict quality assurance process involving the whole paraphernalia of examination boards (including external examiners), so the scripts can’t be given back immediately but once that process is complete there doesn’t seem to me any reason why we shouldn’t give their work, together with any feedback written on it,  back to the students in its entirety.

I have heard some people argue that under the provisions of the Data Protection Act students have a legal right to see what’s written on the scripts – as that constitutes part of their student record – but that’s not my point here. My point is purely educational, based on the benefit to the student’s learning experience.

Anyway, I don’t know how widespread the practice is of giving examination scripts back to students so let me conduct a totally unscientific poll. Obviously most of my readers are in physics and astronomy, but I invite anyone in any academic discipline to vote:

And, of course, if you have any further comments to make please feel free to make them through the box below!



Thirty Years since Section 28..

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on May 24, 2018 by telescoper

I was reminded by twitter that today is the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Local Government Act 1988, which included the now notorious Section 28, which contained the following:

I remember very well the numerous demonstrations and other protests I went on as part of the campaign against the clause that became Section 28. Indeed, these were the first large political demonstrations in which I ever took part. But that repugnant and obviously discriminatory piece of legislation passed into law anyway. Students and younger colleagues of mine born after 1988 probably don’t have any idea how much pain and anger the introduction of this piece of legislation caused at the time, but at least it also had the effect of galvanising  many groups and individuals into action. The fightback eventually succeeded; Section 28 was repealed in 2003. I know 30 years is a long time, but it’s still amazing to me that attitudes have changed so much that now we have same-sex marriage. I would never have predicted that if someone had asked me thirty years ago!

I think there’s an important lesson in the story of Section 28, which is that rights won can easily be lost again. There are plenty of people who would not hesitate to bring back similar laws if they thought they could get away with them.  That’s why it is important for LGBT+ people not only to stand up for their rights, but to campaign for a more open, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for everyone.

Thoughts Suggested by a College Examination – Byron

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on May 24, 2018 by telescoper

High in the midst, surrounded by his peers,
Magnus his ample front sublime uprears:
Plac’d on his chair of state, he seems a God,
While Sophs and Freshmen tremble at his nod;
As all around sit wrapt in speechless gloom,
His voice, in thunder, shakes the sounding dome;
Denouncing dire reproach to luckless fools,
Unskill’d to plod in mathematic rules.

Happy the youth! in Euclid’s axioms tried,
Though little vers’d in any art beside;
Who, scarcely skill’d an English line to pen,
Scans Attic metres with a critic’s ken.

What! though he knows not how his fathers bled,
When civil discord pil’d the fields with dead,
When Edward bade his conquering bands advance,
Or Henry trampled on the crest of France:
Though marvelling at the name of Magna Charta,
Yet well he recollects the laws of Sparta;
Can tell, what edicts sage Lycurgus made,
While Blackstone’s on the shelf, neglected laid;
Of Grecian dramas vaunts the deathless fame,
Of Avon’s bard, rememb’ring scarce the name.

Such is the youth whose scientific pate
Class-honours, medals, fellowships, await;
Or even, perhaps, the declamation prize,
If to such glorious height, he lifts his eyes.
But lo! no common orator can hope
The envied silver cup within his scope:
Not that our heads much eloquence require,
Th’ ATHENIAN’S glowing style, or TULLY’S fire.
A manner clear or warm is useless, since
We do not try by speaking to convince;
Be other orators of pleasing proud,—
We speak to please ourselves, not move the crowd:
Our gravity prefers the muttering tone,
A proper mixture of the squeak and groan:
No borrow’d grace of action must be seen,
The slightest motion would displease the Dean;
Whilst every staring Graduate would prate,
Against what—he could never imitate.

The man, who hopes t’ obtain the promis’d cup,
Must in one posture stand, and ne’er look up;
Nor stop, but rattle over every word—
No matter what, so it can not be heard:
Thus let him hurry on, nor think to rest:
Who speaks the fastest’s sure to speak the best;
Who utters most within the shortest space,
May, safely, hope to win the wordy race.

The Sons of Science these, who, thus repaid,
Linger in ease in Granta’s sluggish shade;
Where on Cam’s sedgy banks, supine, they lie,
Unknown, unhonour’d live—unwept for die:
Dull as the pictures, which adorn their halls,
They think all learning fix’d within their walls:
In manners rude, in foolish forms precise,
All modern arts affecting to despise;
Yet prizing Bentley’s, Brunck’s, or Porson’s note,
More than the verse on which the critic wrote:
Vain as their honours, heavy as their Ale,
Sad as their wit, and tedious as their tale;
To friendship dead, though not untaught to feel,
When Self and Church demand a Bigot zeal.
With eager haste they court the lord of power,
(Whether ’tis PITT or PETTY rules the hour;)
To him, with suppliant smiles, they bend the head,
While distant mitres to their eyes are spread;
But should a storm o’erwhelm him with disgrace,
They’d fly to seek the next, who fill’d his place.
Such are the men who learning’s treasures guard!
Such is their practice, such is their reward!
This much, at least, we may presume to say—
The premium can’t exceed the price they pay.

by George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)


Glamorgan v. Middlesex

Posted in Cardiff, Cricket with tags , , , , on May 23, 2018 by telescoper

I took today off on annual leave (as I have to use all my allowance before I depart my job at Cardiff University). My intention was to make the best of the good weather to watch some cricket.

And so it came to pass that this morning I wandered down to Sophia Gardens for the start of the Royal London One-Day Cup (50-over) match between Glamorgan and Middlesex. It also came to pass that about fifteen minutes later I wandered back home again. I hadn’t checked the start time, which was actually 2pm…

The later start screwed up my plans as I had something to do in the evening but I thought I’d at least watch the first team bat (which turned out to be Middlesex).

(I’m not sure what caused the weird stripes on the picture.. .)

It was a lovely afternoon for cricket, and Middlesex got off to a good start in excellent batting conditions. Gradually though Glamorgan’s bowlers established some measure of control. After a mini-collapse of three wickets in three overs (to Ingram’s legspin) it looked like Middlesex might not make 300 (which seems to be the par score in this competition). Unfortunately for Glamorgan, however, de Lange and Wagg were expensive at the death and a flurry of boundaries took Middlesex to 304 for 6 off their 50 overs.

At that point I left Sophia Gardens to get ready to go out.

I’ve just got back to discover that Glamorgan lost by just 2 runs, ending on 302 for 9. It must have been a tense finish, and was a good game overall, but Glamorgan have now lost all three games they have played in this competition..

Is Dark Matter a Superfluid?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 22, 2018 by telescoper

In between marking exams and project reports I’ve been doing a little bit of reading in preparation for a talk that I’m due to give next week, which prompted me to share this talk by Justin Khoury of the University of Pennsylvania, which is about framework that unifies the claimed success of Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) on galactic scales with the that of the standard ΛCDM model on cosmological scales. This is achieved through the physics of superfluidity. The dark matter and MOND components have a common origin, representing different phases of a single underlying substance. In galaxies, dark matter thermalizes and condenses to form a superfluid phase. The superfluid phonons couple to baryonic matter particles and mediate a MOND-like force. This framework naturally distinguishes between galaxies (where MOND is successful) and galaxy clusters (where MOND is not): dark matter has a higher temperature in clusters, and hence is in a mixture of superfluid and normal phase. The rich and well-studied physics of superfluidity leads to a number of observational signatures, discussed in the talk.

The idea that dark matter might be in the form of a superfluid is not new (see e.g. this paper) but there has been a recent surge of interest driven largely by Khoury and collaborators. If you want to find out more, can find a review paper about this model here.

From Maynooth to Cardiff

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , on May 21, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am in Dublin Airport, waiting for my flight back to Cardiff. It’s been a nice weekend in Ireland, with good weather and lots to do in and around Maynooth. In the course of my perambulations on Saturday I came across a group of people campaigning to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. I A referendum on that issue takes place on Friday this week (25th). I bought a badge from them, which I’m happy to wear in solidarity:

There are lots of posters around supporting supporting one or other side in the campaign. It’s very noticeable that the `Yes’ ones seem to be getting torn down quite regularly. It’s also noticeable that the `No’ ones are frequently rather crude and sometimes offensive. That’s a shame because there is a serious ethical issue at stake, and a grown-up debate is important. Still, past experience suggests that referendums and grown-up debates don’t necessarily go together.

I won’t be in Ireland for the vote, but I hope the ‘yes’ campaign succeeds in removing what I think is a daft piece of law. If it fails then it won’t stop Irish women having terminations, it will just mean that the continue to have to travel abroad (if they can afford to do so) or take terrible risks have an illegal abortion at home (if they can’t) . For me, a vote for `No’ is therefore just a vote for hypocrisy.

Incidentally, a letter arrived at my Cardiff residence a few days ago from the Human Resources Department at Cardiff University, acknowledging my resignation (which I handed in about 6 weeks ago). I noticed that the letter contains the sentence `We have sent this letter to the home address we have on record for you. If this address is incorrect please contact us..’. Hmmm. If the letter had gone to the wrong address how would I know?

Anyway, I’ll be back in Cardiff for the next week, with another set of exams to mark in a few days, then back to Maynooth. And now it’s time to go to the gate.

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!